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GP 30 April 2008: Mile 9: The Journey of the Long-Distance Runner

Why Boston?  It is simply an irrational act to go to Boston at this time of year.  Closer to home, clematis blossoms are flocking to the vine, ceremonial flush purple at first, then paler as the blossom broadens out.  The Japanese maples have achieved a size not seen before, the deep red much more complex than in the Rhone wines we have been drinking lately.  And, oh, the viburnum.  Just behind the pink roses, one specimen has now shot up to 10 or 11 feet, the white balls so lush and copious as to astound the eyeballs.  The green garlic is just at its height, the perfect accompaniment to new country sausage and several experimental dishes that are finding their way to the table. 

To go to Boston is a perverse, irrational act.  This became abundantly clear to us as we toured the small surrounding burgs and found buds on trees, but not much in the way of leaves.  Spring is still meaning to happen in Massachusetts. But, along with thousands of other lemmings, we flooded into Beantown for the Boston Marathon.  This is the oldest and apparently the toughest of the Marathon courses.  Happily we were in attendance to applaud the 21,963 who made the full run, but not to stretch our own tired sinews. 

The Tufts 200.  We cast our lot with the almost 200 runners that Tufts University fielded at Hopkinton.  Our good friends at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute also had a large contingent on the track, and we could easily have spent the day with them.  As well, our friend Richard Marcus, onetime president of Neiman Marcus and today a serial entrepreneur, had his driver take him to several vantage points in order to see his daughter Catherine run a third marathon.  That, too, would have provided very good theater.

Happily we embraced Tufts.  Its president, Lawrence Bacow, himself a running fanatic, has built running into a school sport.  Tufts is so into it that it even has a naked quad run every year where students let it all hang out.  No other congregation at the Marathon seems to turn out more and better devotees.  As an aside, the Tufts Marathon participation also produces three or four hundred thousand for nutrition research, all terribly relevant now that we are faced with a global food crisis.  Both Tufts and Boston have made a mark for themselves in the running game.

Mile 9.  Because of the great generosity of the Tufts Marathon Coach, Donald R. Megerle, we made our way to Mile 9 (Natick) with ease in his company.  A successful swimming coach at Tufts for 33 seasons, he has only recently given himself over to the Marathons.  He is clearly much beloved by the student runners—he combines the focus and the good-hearted spirits which underlie all successful long-term athletic programs.

The Coach remembers every moment of every Marathon:

There I was, nearly three years ago, proudly wearing my official John Hancock Credentials ... just a few feet from thousands of runners completing their journey. I was surrounded by spectators on each side of the barriers that enclosed the race course, along with dozens of BAA officials and EMT personnel ... I was truly in my element!

A former swimming coach, he is able to get totally immersed.

Natick, a onetime a major producer of shoes, is famous for its brogan.  We are ashamed to admit that we did not know this, or we would have worn a pair as we joined Tuftese at their Mile 9 outpost where they cheered on the yellow shirts.  We would guess a hundred or so friends, parents, and alumni had gathered at road’s edge to root for Tuft runners and many others in the race.  Probably we were most amused by a physician from Chicago whose repartee was good and who joined his son for a mile run when the lad came by us.  Lance Armstrong, rather anonymous at this event, slipped by with very little commotion.  Mile 9 was the peak of our day: the actual finish in Boston, though exciting, was a slightly static mass event and an anticlimax after our Mile 9 communion with the runners a third of the way through the race where, as Walt Whitman would put it, one could hear the Song of the Open Road.  We rely here on one of the Tufts runners to tell the full story of the race:

I was up at 5:30 am to catch a bus with the other Tufts runners from campus to Boston.  Upon arriving at Boston Common, we boarded the buses to Hopkinton.  The bus ride took over an hour and a half and many of the runners, some of whom had a 10 am start time, were actually concerned that they would miss the start.  But we had a fantastic bus driver who was determined to get us there and he resorted to driving on the shoulder of the road and to gunning past the other marathon buses.

When we arrived at Athletes Village in Hopkinton, we really did not have that much time.  I had already downed a pint of water and a snack on the bus, so I was fueled up.  I pinned my number to my singlet, put Vaseline between my toes, tied my timing chip to my shoelaces, loaded my bag onto the baggage buses, and headed to the start.

Our wave had an official 10:30 start time.  However, there was about a .7 mile walk between Athletes Village and the actual start line and there were over 12,000 people who started at 10:30.  I figure I crossed the start line close to 11 am.  I ran the first 10K with a Tufts freshman, but we were not well-matched in pace, so I headed off.  Around mile 7, my lower back started acting up.  I was expecting back pain, given my history with sciatica this spring, but I had hoped that it would hold off until much later in the race.  I started to get a bit worried.

However, I was lucky enough to meet up with a Tufts alum, Kevin, and his friend, affectionately known as Goose, both in their late 20s.  They were absolutely fantastic and very upbeat.  Yesterday was Kevin's fourth Boston Marathon and Goose’s 2nd try at finishing the marathon (he was diagnosed with hypothermia at mile 19 last year and had to drop out).  I figured I'd just stick with them and do what they did.  We set a pretty good pace, took advantage of all of the water and Gatorade stops, and cracked jokes all the way.  Goose had written his name on his shirt and many of the spectators asked where Maverick was (as in Goose and Maverick from the movie Top Gun).  At one point, Kevin and I were flanking Goose and a creative spectator yelled “Go Goose and Goose's wings!”

Miles 14 through 17 were pretty brutal downhills.  But as we neared Heartbreak Hill, we really cranked up the speed and totally blasted through Miles 20 and 21.  Though we were tired, the rest of the marathon was pretty easy.  It was so encouraging once we neared Boston—the crowds were awesome!  Kevin and I finished up at 5 hours, 9 minutes, and about 30 seconds.  I actually sprinted the last mile or so (or, at least, it felt like sprinting at the time).  To cross the finish line with energy was incredible.

The Tan Line.  It’s hot out there.  Ideally you want to run a Marathon in 60-degree weather, but this year’s was well over 70 during much of the race.  Of course, that’s better than last year, when all were met by a deluge.  Charles Constantin, a historian and storyteller who ran 13 times at Boston, reminds us of the many hazards—not just sun—that await the long distance runner:

It was a great experience, running it every year for 13 straight years, seeing old friends who lived in the area, doing something I figured I could never do when I was drinking too much and out of shape.  The best thing about it were the crowds, whole towns coming out as we wound our way through communities.  they save their loudest yells and support for the the back of the pack runners.  When I first ran , it was all amateur, and the Wellesley girls would line up close on both sides of the street as we passed through, touching hands.  Once, a pretty blase-looking blonde yelled "where's your tan line?" and I gave her a quick moon. Being over fifty, a great rejuvenater.  When it turned professional, they put the girls at a safer distance, on the other side of the railroad tracks.   Also it is a lot larger now, 20,000 plus. It used to be 6000-8000 and more manageable, especially at the start.  The trade-off is that it gives more people an opportunity to run.   Anyway, fond memories that I thought would never end.  And of course they don't. 

I started in 1984 or 83, whichever makes 13, to 1996, which was the 100th anniversary and the last Boston I ran.  I wanted to run Big Sur, which always was on the same date as Boston.  When I finally did, I fell at the 21st mile and had 29 stitches across my forehead.  That was when I realized I had some peripheral nerve problems in the legs and never did make it back to Boston.  While 13 straight sounds impressive, I always was amazed at how many had run more.  Also I usually won age group medals in other marathons, but never could at Boston, which gets the best age group runners in the world.  Another humbling experience.

The Wind Bag.  Dr. Donald Bienfang is a Bostonian we cherish because he possesses an elegant wit and he knows the value of a drink well made.  We have recorded some of his wisdom at “Old-Fashioned Manhattans.”  Runner, too, of many marathons, he captures for us a lot of curious behavior, even his own.  Each run generates a slew of laughs:

There are numerous Rosi Ruiz type stories (she was the one who jumped in too
early at the end of the race and ended up "winning" the women's division one
year).  I ran one BAA Marathon and passed the same guy (who I knew well) three times without him ever passing me once.  It will take you a minute but think about it.  He was clearly using some other modes of transportation for part of the race.  The New York Marathon has the longest urinal ever constructed at the start.  You run through the devout Jewish section of NYC I don't think there are many marathon runners among the Hasidim.  There used to be a Cape Cod marathon.  When I ran it, it was so cold I wore a plastic bag and discovered if I pulled the bag out for certain sections I could get a "wind assist".  Years later I was recovering from a local race and a guy told me about running the Cape Cod Marathon next to some weird guy wearing a plastic bag using it as a sail.  Of course it was me.  Kudos to the girls at the end of the London Marathon hired by Mars Bars to kiss each finisher at the end of the race.

Did you know after a Marathon you can walk up stairs but not down.  Also your breath is terrible because you have been burning muscle not glucose (which you have none of) and so you smell like a diabetic without any insulin.  You can tell you're ready for a marathon when people ask you "How is your chemotherapy going?"

I may not be able to remember exactly but I ran Boston in 79, NY in 80 and 84, I ran the 100th Boston in 96.  I ran London in (I think) 87.  I did Cape Cod twice. Say 85 (the bag) and 90. I wasn't really in shape for it but I was part of a team and one of the better runners wasn't sure he could finish and we needed a certain number of finishers-never mind the time-to get points.  So I made a deal that if he finished someone would drive back in a car, tell me to stop, and pick me up.  Well he finished but they forgot the deal.  You can scatter about 3 more Bostons in between 79 and 96 I really didn't keep track.

A Mixed BagJim Fixx, a journalist-runner, who was responsible as much as anyone for getting the running craze going in modern America, died after a run one day.  He had heart and circulatory troubles anyway, but he was not the first or the last to kick the bucket after a run.  One New York marathoner has reminded us that running, particularly long distance running, is simply hard on the body, and one has to know when to give it up.  In Boston, on the sidelines, we met a heap of oldsters who did not give it up in time and whose bodies were full of regrets.  Coach Megerle’s swimming or simple bike riding are probably better bets year after year. 

That said, running is now part of America, yet another facet of our dramatically changed country that says we have to run things differently because we are a different people.  Our leaders have not caught up to our runners.  This might remind us of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, a Tom Courtenay movie made back in 1962.  In many ways, we are competing with nobody when we run: we are running against ourselves.  Maybe escaping other aspects of our lives.  Maybe just bettering our last time.  There’s a solitude to the long distance journey, even if there are 21,000 on the same course.  The planet is getting pretty crowded, but the long journeys are done all by our lonesome selves.

P.S.  Tufts has a lot of endearing eccentricities.  It’s mascot, for instance, is a jumbo elephant courtesy of P.T. Barnum.  We would like to see such a creature by the running track, just as Handsome Dan is hauled out for Yale’s global events.  As near as we can tell, the best sport to follow at Tufts is football, because nobody comes.  We watched one game, on a beautiful Fall day, between Tufts and Williams or some small New England college.  The stands half full, the very good cheer on both sides gladdened the heart.  It was a family affair.

P.P.S.  If we were ever to do a marathon, surely it would have to be at Tromso.  Oh, to have the pleasure of running by the midnight sun.

P.P.P.S.  In these United States, everything now demands a long view.  But we are rather too accustomed to thinking in days rather than years, in feet instead of miles.  In almost every pursuit, we are now wise to pin our hopes on fellows who can look over the horizon, knowing that today is not working.


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